Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Trounson and Torres and the Battle for Chair of the California Stem Cell Agency

The president of the California stem cell agency, Alan Trounson, may resign if the new chairman of the $3 billion research effort is not a person who has worked with the biomedical industry, Nature magazine reported today.

Trounson's position was disclosed publicly for the first time by writer Elie Dolgin in a profile of outgoing CIRM Chairman Robert Klein in the Dec. 2 edition of the internationally respected journal.

Trounson's preference could have an impact on the election of the chairman, which the CIRM board is expected to take up later this month. Art Torres, a former state legislator with little connection to industry, is one of the leading candidates, along with Alan Bernstein, head of HIV Global Vaccine Enterprise of New York, who is being backed heavily by Klein. The Trounson disclosure could also shape how the CIRM board receives the report Dec. 8 of the blue-ribbon panel that was chaired by Bernstein.

Dolgin wrote,
“Klein’s departure might also trigger the president to leave, thereby causing a complete overhaul of CIRM’s leadership. Trounson says he told Schwarzenegger that he would like that next chairperson to be 'somebody who’s in the delivery end of the spectrum — that is, somebody who has worked with the biotech or pharmaceutical industry.'
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“But as this issue was going to press, the leading internal candidate to replace Klein, many say, is vice-chair Art Torres, a former state senator and chairman of the California Democratic Party. Torres and Trounson reportedly cannot stand each other. Trounson notes that Torres is 'a politician, so he’s in that end of the spectrum.' Torres, for his part, declined to comment on his relationship with the president.”
Trounson's foray into board politics came in a multi-dimensional look at Klein and his role in Prop. 71 and as chairman of the agency. The piece included both praise for Klein along with some of his warts.

Here are some excerpts:
“He (Klein) leaves behind an agency with a long list of accomplishments, including more than US$1.15 billion in grants, six new facilities dotted across the state and close to 700 scientific papers.

“Yet many critics say that Klein and CIRM have failed to fully deliver. Despite promises that money borrowed from the state — at least $6 billion over ten years, when interest is factored in — would be returned through commercial spin-offs and savings to health care, the first marketable therapies have yet to materialize. Only two CIRM-funded projects have made it to early-stage clinical trials, and neither of these involves embryonic stem cells — the main impetus for launching the agency in the first place. The embryonic stem-cell clinical trials that have recently been approved in the United States are the product of privately funded research.

“Klein’s critics say his promotion of stem cells’ therapeutic promise was zealous and oversimplified. He 'left voters with the impression that people will be jumping out of their wheelchairs and not being diabetic within a year,' says John Simpson, a long-time observer and critic of the agency’s governance, who is at the consumer-advocacy group Consumer Watchdog based in Santa Monica, California. 'There’s been this constant compulsion for [Klein] to say, ‘See, we’re delivering, we’re delivering’, and that’s something that’s haunted him throughout the whole thing.'

“Throughout CIRM’s existence, Klein has pulled the strings, maintaining control over nearly every aspect of its structure and science, often to the chagrin of its other leaders. Still, many observers say that no one else could have weathered CIRM’s early storms. 'With Bob, there’s always this indefatigableness,' says Douglas Wick, a movie producer and diabetes advocate who worked with Klein to get CIRM funded. 'His personal energy and charisma are so strong, and he has this ability to get punched, stand up and go at it again.'”
Dolgin continued,
“But not all the early organizers of Proposition 71 remain enthusiastic about the way Klein led the charge. 'It became Bob’s show almost entirely, and there was some friction about that,' recalls Peter Van Etten, former JDRF president and chief executive. (Home developer Tom) Coleman (an early key organizer for Prop. 71) has not spoken to Klein since the initiative passed, following disagreements over what Coleman viewed as Klein’s self-promotional approach. (Movie director Jerry) Zucker (another influential early organizer of the Prop. 71 campaign) remains on better terms with Klein, but still feels some lingering resentment.

“'If I had to do it over again I’d make the same call to Bob Klein because I don’t think the rest of us would have got it done without him,' Zucker says. But, he adds, 'What I was most unhappy about was the realization after a while that [Klein] wrote the initiative for him to be the chairman. That was something I was too naive to realize. It’s shameless almost.'”
Dolgin also spoke with Joel Adelson, a health policy researcher at UC San Francisco, who co-authored a study of the agency earlier this year. Dolgin wrote,
“'Klein has in effect acted like the chief operating officer beside Trounson and beside (former CIRM President Zach) Hall, and I can only say that this looks like it must have been very uncomfortable for these guys,' Adelson says. 'It’s an unusual situation,' says Trounson. 'And if you ask me what I prefer,I prefer the simple situation where the president is in charge of all management and reporting to a board on policies. But it’s bifurcated, and it was set up that way, so you don’t have a choice.” (Hall declined to comment for this story.)”
Dolgin also quoted a CIRM board member on Klein.
“'He’s an historic figure with real genius in terms of moving biomedicine forward,' says Jeff Sheehy, a CIRM board member and director for communications at the University of California, San Francisco’s AIDS Research Institute. 'He’s as good as they get if not better.'”
Dolgin also noted that some criticism of Klein focused on CIRM's emphasis on clinical applications. However, a significant number of folks in the biotech industry believe the agency is overbalanced towards basic research. Sphere: Related Content

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